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COLUMNS

Since the 1980s Susan has published hundreds of columns in the New Paltz Times. Here is a small sample of her writings

SUSAN'S COLUMNS

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WELCOME TO MY WORLD

Indrani Kopal is a woman who is tired of the turbulence in the world.  As a documentary filmmaker and senior editor in Malaysia, she filmed a lot of political unrest. She sought a new direction. She was one of five Malaysians and the first filmmaker chosen out of hundreds who applied for a Fulbright grant to pursue graduate study in the United States.  All she needed to get started was a subject for her MFA documentary.

 After visiting the Creedmoor State Mental Hospital and viewing the art work of the residents, she sensed the documentary subject should have something to do with rehabilitation and the arts. After she typed “rehabilitation and the arts” into Google an article about my work with prisoners appeared. She sent a friend request through Facebook; her picture, a gorgeous young woman in a sari at first caused suspicion. It took several days before, out of curiosity, I responded. Out of the 7.5 billion people on the planet she fished me out of cyberspace and asked my work  for with prisoners to  be the subject of her documentary.

 THE PROJECT

 In 1969 my husband and I took a trip around the world.  While in Afghanistan I befriended Ahmed an eleven year old street urchin who supported himself shining the shoes of the few tourists who visited that remote part of the planet. I wore cloth sneakers, so I bought him a pair of leather shoes in the open market and paid him each day to shine his own shoes.  It was a game we played.  I was a kid myself, only 24 years old.

 When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 I wrote an article critical of the American invasion in which I imagined I returned to Afghanistan to look for Ahmed. The research I did for the article was very depressing.  I poured myself into the writing and soon I was miserable.  I didn’t understand the world at all; so much confusion, contradiction, and ambiguity made it impossible for me to grasp the meanings in any of it. In an attempt to sort it all out and get some clarity I decided to create a dance piece called “Welcome to The World.”

 I found a twenty-minute piece of music with a variety of dramatic changes. When I listened to the music I saw the entire dance unfold inside my head. 

  Just like my perception of the world,  the dance became a mish mosh of changing narratives: a little child looks at a bag lady sleeping on the street, a man sweeps a human being across the stage, people in all types of dress depicting all kinds characters move about immersed in their own agendas. Dancers read the newspaper while they dance and react to the headlines (which were different with each performance).  Included in the dance is a war that starts off funny and ends deadly.     A child encounters a magical beast shaped like a dinosaur but comprised of moving bodies.  She begs the animal to swallow her up;  when it does the beast dies then and gives birth to the next stage of the girl’s life; a comment on the negative aspects of being a teenager.    Suddenly everyone is doing the Polka.  A rock concert happens where the celebrity is worshiped then rejected. All the dancers are wildly imitating the rock star trying to be him when a bell tolls and everything changes.   All the dancers form a clump and look off in the distance. The little children renter. In my mind I envisioned a tragedy like the attack on the World Trade Center which can shock people out of their self-involved state. Everyone on stage becomes present, motionless.  One at a time the children and the dancers are lifted above the crowd and gently embraced and protected as they are let down until the music ends.

 The first time we performed “Welcome to The World” it took several stunned seconds for the audience to applaud before the shouting and standing ovation began. Until Indrani Kopal found me I never thought I would see this dance performed again.

THE CAST

    The current Figures in Flight 4 dancers are the most homogenous of all the previous youth dance companies; All girls, only one boy, Caucasian, and from middle class families.  Since they began dancing at five years old, they watched the “Welcome to the World “performed by the older dancers.  Now that they are old enough they want a chance to dance it, too.  Many times I told them that we did not have the personnel. We would need at least 4 male dancers.

 The Woodbourne Dance Company Figures in Flight 5 inside of prison walls is about as opposite a demographic to Figures in Flight 4 as possible. They are all men, 98 percent black and Hispanic; most quit school and received a GED inside of prison. The majority committed felonies during their teen-age years and have been locked up for approximately fifteen to twenty five years.   When I began teaching dance in Woodbourne Prison I showed a video of “Welcome to the World.”   Discussions followed unpacking each moment, mulling it over and relating it to their lives.

 Love of dance, my instruction and choreography are the only commonalities these two groups share.

COMING TOGETHER

 A visitor from another dance school recently came to see if she wanted to change schools. “Tell her something about our dance school,” I asked.

“We have a big brother dance company also called Figures In Flight, but we don’t get to dance with them as much as we would like to because they are all in prison.”  That was the last time we ever saw the visiting dancer.

 I was once told that as soon as the prison dancers achieved their freedom they would never dance another step; not true and time has proved it.

 One man after another was freed. When there were four, they formed a new dance company, “Figures In Flight Released” under the direction of former prisoner Andre Noel. Since then they have performed twice at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, Vassar College,  John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Columbia University, and Fordham University.

 On June 8th they danced for the second time at the annual Figures In Flight concert along with their little sister company.  Indrani Kopol was on hand to interview the dancers.

“They really admire and respect each other.  That’s mostly what they talked about, mutual appreciation,” she told me.

 At first Indrani’s concept was to only include the released prisoners in the documentary.  But when she saw these totally divergent groups helping each other with steps, sharing food, and relaxing together before the show, she had an epiphany.  As amazing as former prisoners dancing is, these two groups dancing together is unprecedented and has probably never happened before.

 

 Just before the concert the two companies gathered together outside McKenna Theater to take a picture. They beckoned me to join but I just couldn’t. The image of these two groups, good-looking and healthy, standing together and smiling was overwhelmingly joyful for me to see.

REMEMBERING DR. MARGARET WADE LEWIS

She taught me to count black people everywhere, here, in the chorus at the high school spring concert, the parking lot at Shop Rite, the county pool, and all over the streets of our town.  During the years we spent some part of everyday together we didn’t see many black people. She died in 2010. Since then I have kept up the lonely tradition. Now there are always black people in New Paltz to count.  When the number is high, I look up and tell her.

 

She was one of the founders of SUNY New Paltz's Black Studies Department. She shaped the department for forty years right up until her death, throughout multiple bouts with cancer. We who loved her begged her to take a break. She never did. At times she became demoralized by slow progress against racism. To make a greater contribution to her people she took into her home on Huguenot Street, adjacent to the Black Slave burial ground, several African-American foster children.

 We met in 1971, each of us dressed in the costumes of the times, she with a huge Afro, wearing a dashiki, me in tie-dye and combat boots. That day she was having a picture of Malcolm X framed. Since I was a graduate of the art department I chimed in, unasked for, and told her the frame she picked was wrong. She said, “You are some nervy white girl!” and that was the start of one of the most important relationships in my life.

 

 She took a dance class I taught in the early 1970’s at The Dancing Theater which was located above Handmade.  Margaret was the only black person in the class.   She spread the word at her church in Poughkeepsie and soon there were a number of African- American women attending the class.

          “Susie,” she said one day, (she was the only person in my life to  call me that) “as soon as the population in your dance class reaches a critical mass of black women, all the white women will quit. It’s not that they are bad people.  It’s just that they are uncomfortable when the minority population isn’t what they are used too”.

          “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “This is New Paltz not Montgomery, Alabama.”

           Within a month I was the only white person in the studio during her dance class.

             Although we passed the decades talking about our children, who we were raising as siblings, often our relationship was a thirty-five year conversation about race in America.  There was a lot to talk about.

             We met during the years after Martin Luther King’s assassination and the aftermath of uprisings that occurred in 125 American cities. It was a frightening spectacle to see America’s cities burning night after night on television, but that motivated Margaret to make efforts to become part of the solution.  

          Margaret became the Affirmative Action Officer at the College. She taught Black English, Contemporary Black Literature, Black Poetry and Drama, and African Culture.

           When I began teaching in prison she would often say as we reached mid-life how proud she was that we were still fighting the good fight.

        Every time there was a “first” for African American people, Margaret and I would talk about all about; Shirley Chisholm of New York was the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress.  She eventually was also the first to campaign for the Presidency of the United States.

          Alfred Day Hershey, Ph.D. geneticist, was the first African American to share a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

           General Daniel James of the Air Force became the first African American four star general.

           Howard N. Lee became the first African American mayor of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a predominately white Southern city.

.           In 1976, college and university enrollment for African American students rose  from 282,000 in 1966 to 1,062,000 in 1976. This happened here as well. Margaret got busy designing ways to help the Black students succeed, creating tutoring and mentorship programs.

            Nelson Mandela, South African Black Nationalist, was finally freed and became the president of South Africa.   Margaret and I perceived that to be a miracle. She lived to see Obama become president.

           Not all the news was good.   Chicago police gunned down Black Panther leader Fred Hampton while he was asleep in his bed.
         Two students, Philip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green, were killed by police in a confrontation with students at Jackson State University, Jackson, Mississippi.
         The San Rafael, California courthouse shooting resulted in the death of Judge Harold Haley and three others including Jonathan Jackson, the younger brother of imprisoned Black Panther George Jackson. UCLA Philosophy Professor Angela Davis was implicated in the shooting.  Davis was captured and brought to trial. 
          1,200 inmates seized control of half of the New York State Prison at Attica. Four days later 29 inmates and ten hostages were killed when state troopers and correctional officers suppressed the uprising.

         

         Los Angeles police used force to arrest Rodney King after a San Fernando Valley traffic stop. The beating of King was captured on videotape and broadcast widely.   A Simi Valley, California jury acquitted the three officers accused of beating Rodney King. The verdict triggered a three day uprising in Los Angeles that resulted in over 50 people killed, over 2,000 injured and 8,000 arrested. Once again an American city was aflame.

        On June 7 1998, churchgoers discovered the dismembered body of James Byrd, Jr. of Jasper, Texas. It was later determined that three white supremacists chained Byrd, who was black, to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged him to his death.

 We did not only talk about big political milestones or tragic events. We discussed the Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey phenomena, the popularity of The Cosby Show---I wonder what she would say about Bill Cosby now--- Muhammad Ali’s fight with George Foreman, Alex Haley’s final episode of Roots which, at the time, achieved the highest rating ever for a single television program.

When O.J. Simpson’s former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were found stabbed to death, O.J. Simpson emerged as the leading suspect. The high speed chase, the arrest, the court trial and the reactions in the black and white communities gave us plenty of material to discuss.

        We did not always agree. Sometimes our disagreements reached the danger level. But we would eventually just agreed to disagree and move on.

          The last time I called her was to talk about Michael Jackson’s death.  I tried for days to speak to her. Finally, her husband, David Lewis, called. He told me  she was at Sloan-Kettering fighting another recurrence of cancer. I saw her twice in the hospital; both times when she was at St. Francis in Poughkeepsie. The visit was brief. I asked her how she was and she replied as she always did, saying, “I can’t complain.” The second visit was longer. We mostly reminisced about the past.

        I knew she was dying.

        The third visit was on Christmas Day, five days before she died. We joked about my coming to see her on Christmas and I reminded her that Jews were generally available and looking for something to do on the holiday.

       I brought a CD of music from the years of the Civil Rights struggle. I held her hand and we listened to the songs about justice and freedom. That was the last time I saw her.

     One day, years ago, we were not talking, just being together. She broke the silence by asking me, “Do you ever look at me and forget that I am black?”

       ”No,” I said.

       “Do you ever look at me and forget that I am white?” I asked

       “No” she replied.

        That memory used to make me sad. Not anymore. We loved each other anyway.

        Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis was not necessarily in favor of a color-blind America, just a country where color didn’t matter, and there was true justice and equality for all.

     When her husband, David Lewis, was elected to the New Paltz Town Board she called me and said, “Throughout the campaign there was not a mention of his color.” She was very proud of our town for that.

OH HOLY NIGHT

Hanukah is not the same without wide-eyed little children mesmerized by the light   coming from candles commemorating a miracle. I miss the holiday. I also miss Christmas.

 You don’t have to be a Christian to mourn the Ghost of Christmas Past when the holiday was less about shopping and more about introspection, transformation, giving to the poor and turning towards kindness, like Scrooge on Christmas morning.

I grew up loving Christmas, although at home I was only allowed to hang a Christmas stocking. I coped with the loss by finagling an invitation to my best friend’s house where the holiday was celebrated in full style. The aromas from the Christmas feast, the twinkling magical tree with a star on top, each ornament unfolded from its year-long hiding place, hung with nibble fingers on to the fragrant pine tree, the mistletoe which I would pretend not to see, but linger under, since you never know……. That was a long time ago. 

 

Until last night, the spirit of Christmas remained a distant memory. There was no food, no tree, no presents, no family reunion.  A piece of cake was all there was to eat and a bottle of water was all there was to drink.  Nevertheless, it was the most festive Christmas I have ever been privileged to attend. The merry-makers knew something about the Christmas spirit of redemption.  All, to the last man, were Scrooge woken up after the visits from the three spirits.

 If a down-trodden environment can be lit up by the inner light from people of good will, that’s what happened in a tawdry room made bright, lit up by the spirit of the souls within.  It was in prison.

 Led by Sally Hitchcock, through the auspices of Rehabilitation Through The Arts, the umbrella organization which has allowed me teach dance in prisons, eleven men  performed twelve Christmas songs.  A burly black man and a burly white man, arms around each other’s shoulders sang with gusto and bravado a version of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, “You better watch out, You better not cry, you better be good.”  One song was hilarious. In a version of “I’m Getting Nothing  For Christmas,” all the men reverted to their childhood personas, boo-hooing between lines, saying in  little boy’s voices, phrases like “It’s not fair mommy!  

I'm gettin' nuttin' for Christmas
'Cause I ain't been nothin' but bad.

I broke my bat on Johnny's bed
Somebody snitched on me!
I hid a frog in sister’s bed
Somebody snitched on me!
I spilled some ink on mommy's bed.
I made Tommy eat a bug.
Bought some gum with a penny slug.
Somebody snitched on me!

I’m getting nothing for Christmas!”

In between the frivolity, I had a sobering thought. They had all, like us all, been innocent children.

 

These two songs, sung by prisoners, about misbehaving when little boys, hit me as ironic and sad. At some point all had misbehaved in a huge grown up way, yet the child, still so present within, coming through their boyish posturing, the voices without a modicum of guile, were poignant and delightful.

An older man, maybe in his 60’s or 70’s, most likely in prison for many years, approached the microphone with deliberate intention, heralding what was to come.

Before the first note, a hush fell over the attendees. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” I love this song written by Mel Torme, a Jewish man, who wrote it in the middle of August on a hot day in the southeastern desert.   All the greats, beginning with Nat King Cole have recorded it. This gentleman’s version was wrapped in tenderness so rare, I have never heard any song sung with such touching grace.

  After the men performed, requests were taken from the audience for a sing-along. I requested, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Recorded in 1943 by Bing Crosby, it quickly became a top-ten hit. It was written to honor soldiers overseas during World War Two who longed to be home at Christmas time. Most recordings of the song are wistful and in that context of soldiers at war, far away from home and loved ones, the song connotes  sadness and longing.

 But not last night. The men sung it with optimism, conviction and hope being sure that someday they would be home for Christmas. 

 We are in a strange time. Hopelessness is everywhere. When I came home I put on the news to see protests all over America against the pending tax bill. People in wheelchairs were holding vigils carrying lit candles, others were standing in front of congressional offices for hours in the cold.  Human decorations at Christmas time all wishing and hoping to change darkness into light.  I imagined the president and congress people being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, waking up transformed. Wouldn’t that be wonderful!  In the words of Tiny Tim at the end of my favorite film, the old black and white version of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, we could all say, “God bless us, everyone” you never know……

I wish all the inhabitants of our beautiful hamlet here in New Paltz happiness, hope, and peace at this time and forever. And again, it bears repeating, “God bless us, everyone.”